Photo of owl courtesy of Lise Thorbourne Stoddard.
By Laurent d’Entremont
This past spring, as in years gone by, we have been observing a family of great-horned owls on Pubnico Point; they were nesting near one of the windmill roads. This family consists of the mama owl and her two babies. The papa owl, having done his duties, likely moved on to other things. These owls are quite tame, but it is very wise not to get too close to them. In order to see them, I had to walk the better part of half an hour, but the sight was well worth the walk. I kept my distance, but some folks have gotten too close to them…we’ll get to that later.
The great-horned owl is the second-heaviest owl in North America, only surpassed in weight by its relative, the snowy owl.
The great-horned owl is barrel-shaped, sort of a brown/grayish colour, and can have a wing span of over forty inches. The “horns”, which give the owl its name, are neither horns nor ears, but rather tufts of feathers. Its legs and feet, covered in feathers, are very, very strong. The owl’s feet have crushing power of 300 pounds per square inch with its talons. The talons are used to kill most, if not all, of its prey. An owl can see in low light with its binocular vision and its hearing may be even better than its vision.
The diet of these magnificent birds of prey consists of almost any living creature that walks, flies or swims. These birds prey on small- and medium-size mammals, such as rabbits, squirrels, mice, frogs, porcupines, marmots and even skunks. They will also eat smaller birds, like woodpeckers, crows, gulls, ducks, quail, herons, pigeons and so on. This owl can be found from the sub-artic and throughout most of North and Central America and also in South America.
Great-horned owls like their privacy, as my friend Raymond, a well-known birder, found out. Several years ago, a family of owls was nesting among the windmills, as they do today. Raymond, equipped with binoculars, was on his birding trek when he decided to walk under the roosting mama horned owl, which was not a wise choice. The protective owl left her perch, and, with wings spread out, dived for the birder, but luckily did not attack, this stunt was just to scare him away…it more than likely did.
Many years ago, one of my neighbours found out just how fierce owls can be. This neighbour had found an owl’s nest in the Pubnico Lake area and decided to investigate. Very daringly, or perhaps foolishly, he waited for the mother owl to leave the nest, and then climbed the tree to see what was inside. He never made it to the nest; the owl with super hearing returned, gave him a whack on the back of the head with its claws, knocking off his cap and drawing blood. Owls can be very vicious and should be left alone.
Some weeks ago, on a Sunday morning, when I was on my early-morning walk, I met a friend who told me where the owls, a mother and two babies, were roosting. I kept on my walk, but could not spot them, even though I had been told where to look. That’s how well-camouflaged these birds can be in the deep woods. Suddenly, I spotted the motionless mother owl, no more than 30 feet from me, on a tall tree near the road. Stopping in my tracks, I stared at the owl that was staring right back at me… I noticed a garter snake nearby sunning itself in the morning glow, perhaps breakfast for the hungry owl. Feeling that I was perhaps a bit too close and crowding her territory, the huge bird lifted her right foot, showing me her talon and razor sharp claws. The message was quite clear: “Move on, old boy, or I’ll slice you up like a Larsen Bologna from the Annapolis Valley”… I moved on.
Some of our readers may be familiar with this great bird of prey. They may not be that plentiful, but according to birders, some can be spotted on the mountainsides of the Annapolis Valley. As for our windmill brood, happily, I can report that our family of owls is doing very well; the babies are growing fast, surviving on a diet of rabbit, squirrels and green frogs, which are plentiful near their roosting area.